Anyone within spitting distance of Blaha Louisa square in Budapest can’t fail to notice the imposing Eclectic building of the old New York Hotel, currently the Boscolo Budapest. It was commissioned by the New York Insurance company in the end of the 19th century. It then became the headquarters of a newspaper, a warehouse under the Communists and, later, a hotel. But lurking at its ground floor is arguably the most spectacular fin-de-siecle cafe in Europe, the New York Cafe; while the hotel may have changed its name, the cafe has not.
It opened on 23 October 1894 by coffee baron Sándor Steuer and its luxurious decor was supposed to attract the best of Hungarian aristocracy. They, however, were shocked by the sixteen Pan-like figurines in the entrance which resembled sixteen hoofed devils and stayed away; whereas the bohemian intelligentsia loved the two fingers these figures seemed to show the bourgeoisie and made the cafe their own.
There are many apocryphal stories associated with the New York cafe. Many swear that, on opening day, poet Ferenc Molnár took the door keys and threw them into the Danube “so that the cafe never closes its doors”. (He must have been very determined, because the Danube is quite a few miles away from this spot.)
Another famous story is the Crab With One Claw. When a customer asked for crab, he was offered a specimen with just one claw.
“Waiter“, he asked, “why does my crab have one claw?”
“Sorry Sir“, replied the waiter, “he was in a fight with another crab in the aquarium and the other one detached his claw“.
Unperturbed, the customer replied: “In that case, may I have the winner, please?”
The cafe soon changed hands and became the literary hangout of Budapest. Two great Hollywood film-makers misspent their youth here: Alexander Korda (“The Thief of Baghdad”) and Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”). Poet Dezső Kosztolányi one of Hungary’s top Shakespearean translators ate and drank here – literally to death (he died of cancer of the palate). Imre Kálman wrote many of his operettas sipping a coffee here. And Gyula, the Maitre D’ With No Surname, was ever so trusted and trusting: it is said that a customer ran a tab over 23 years. When he asked for it, Gyula reproduced it with every item accounted for.
Are these times of tales and anecdotes now a distant past, never to return? Well, with Paris Hilton, the Ferrari Grand Prix team and the Dalai Lama all staying at the Boscolo Hotel and eating at the restored masterpiece that is the New York Cafe, they are more likely than not to go on producing tidbits.
Maybe the only one fit for public consumption is this: when the Dalai Lama was offered the hotel’s Presidential suite, a few years back, he saw it, blinked and blankly refused.
He stayed in a standard room instead..